Seeing Red: Redheads Come Together Under One FlagS

Readheadday sounds fun enough, I guess, a celebration of ruddy-haired solidarity - but what's with all the picture-snapping tourists?

Redhead Day was founded in 2005 non-redhead Bart Rouwenhorst, a mechanical engineer from Breda, Netherlands. A part-time painter, Mr. Rouwenhorst originally solicited red-headed models, but the event has grown into a two-day extravaganza that attracts redheads from all over the world and some
7,000 spectators. Redheadday is intended to foster solidarity and community amidst a community that, being a pigmentary minority, have often historically been the butt of teasing. And perhaps, given some scientists' prediction that red hair faces extinction, preserve a dying way of...hair.

Here's how the BBC described this year's event:

Men and women sporting a spectrum of ginger, from strawberry blonde to rich ochre, swap stories of being picked on in the playground, discrimination in the wider world - a family in Newcastle claimed they were driven from their home because of anti-ginger abuse in 2007 - and the whys and wherefores of raising a ginger brood...Walking round the city, redheads smile and laugh with one another. Since this is a celebration of gingerism, an army of hairdressers, makeup artists and cameramen have been drafted in to prepare for the fashion shoot, treating redheads like celebrities. The dermatologist's class - redheads tend to have very fair skin - is so popular it has to move to the main part of Breda's cathedral to accommodate all those who want to attend.

Anyone who's spent much time in the British isles knows about the ingrained prejudice against hard-g "gingers," much of which surely dates from age-old racially-motivated distrust of Irish and Scottish immigrants, amongst whom red hair is more common. I remember when I lived there how utterly bizarre I found remarks like, "Lily Cole'd be pretty - if she wasn't ginger," or "I stood over his crib for hours just praying his hair wouldn't go ginger." What the hell? In 2007, the BBC addressed the issue with the headline, "Is Gingerism As Bad As Racism?"

Journalist Sharon Jaffa - also a red-head - says society must stop its ginger-baiting."Growing up as a redhead I was lucky enough to escape with just the occasional name-calling - having the surname Jaffa was no doubt a double-whammy. But attacking someone on the basis of their hair colour can be every bit as damaging as persecuting someone for their race or religion, and therefore, in some cases, needs to be taken just as seriously." Red hair has great cultural resonance. Red is the colour of heat, danger and warnings. When applied to women, it is the colour of sensuousness, fiery temperament and emotional instability. "Lilith [Adam's lover] was a redhead. It indicates red hair was bad. Shakespeare made all his most menacing characters wear red wigs. That seeps into culture,"

(By the by, while red hair is found in nearly every ethnic group, the Guinness Book of World Records characterized the meetup as "racially-based" and as such ineligible for inclusion.) And even when the coloring is prized or regarded as beautiful - and beyond schoolyard taunts of anything different, I don't believe the prejudice against red hair is, in general, anywhere near as bad stateside - it's hard to slip under the radar. "People feel an obligation to comment on it," remarked a friend of mine with a gorgeous Titian mane after the third catcaller of the day had made some obvious observation about the color of her hair. "I know I have red hair. Thanks. I'm glad you like it. Or don't. And no, I'm not especially "fiery," in case you were wondering."

So, this is what I wonder about the event: do people really want to be celebrated based on the appearance that distinguishes them every day? Is the point not to stand out, for a change? And given how frequently red hair's been objectified, from the pre-Raphaelites to those hot-temper stereotypes, isn't it a little tiresome to be gawked at by bystanders - and coralled by a man who loves red hair as a painting subject? The piece mentions that one of the attendees "runs a ginger modelling agency and is looking to add a ginger-only theatre company." Really?

Maybe I just don't get it, and after a lifetime of having one's hair commented upon, everyone has different ways of coming to terms. After all, it's easy for me to admire Joan Holloway's striking coloring or the Weasley Family's distinctive commonality - they (or, um, real-people equivalents) live with the special every day. Says the fest's founder, "When people come together as redheads, they just look at each other...they have a certain bond. And I think this whole event will some day expand to multiple events, maybe across the world. I think the ginger community will start."

Redheads | Roodharigendag | Redhead day [Flickr]
Redhead Day 2009 [Gingerism]
Will Rare Redheads Be Extinct By 2100? [Seattle Times]
Is Gingerism As Bad As Racism [BBC]